The star of the new film 50/50 discusses his work in the upcoming Batman film and talks about the work of his production company, hitRECord.
Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Tavis: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a talented actor whose credits include films like “Inception” and, of course, TV shows like “Third Rock from the Sun.” Next summer you can catch him in the latest installment of the Batman series, “The Dark Knight Rises.” More on that, I suspect, in a moment.
Starting September 30th, though, he stars in the new film “50/50,” and so here now a scene from “50/50.”
Tavis: What makes this thing work, one of the things that makes it work is the levity that is applied to a very serious subject matter. When one is diagnosed, I suspect, with cancer – and this is based on a true story, inspired by a true story, when one, I suspect, is diagnosed with cancer in your twenties, a little levity, I suspect, helps, but that scene kind of brings that out.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, well, I think more than anything what it is is honest. Like you said, it is inspired by a true story. The guy who wrote the script, his name’s Will, and he survived cancer. When he got better he decided to write a comedy about it.
I think a lot of people are sort of timid to laugh in serious situations like this, but I think it’s really healthy. Not everything’s funny, but sometimes there are those funny moments and it’s okay to laugh, and they say laughter’s the best medicine. I think that’s cool.
Tavis: One of the things I always have and still do envy about actors is that – and I’m fortunate that I get a chance to talk to all kinds of folk on this show every night and learn different things every day, and I go to bed at least feeling smarter. I don’t know if I am or not, but I feel smarter when I watch this show every night.
Gordon-Levitt: What’s the difference, really? (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, it feels good. Having said that, actors get a chance to play different roles and to learn different things every time they play a different role.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, that’s true.
Tavis: So I raise that to ask, Joseph, what do you take away, what do you learn when you play a character who is, all jokes aside, diagnosed with cancer and has a 50/50 chance of living in his twenties?
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, well, it means that I spent all day for a couple months shooting the movie thinking what would it be like it I had a 50/50 chance of living, and thinking about, well, look, even if I’m not diagnosed with cancer now, one day I’m going to die. It’s something that we all do. What does that mean, and am I happy with that?
I think in the end I guess if I had to isolate what I take away, it’s just gratitude. Every day I’ve got to be thankful that I am alive, and you never know – the cliché is, I guess, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow, so you’d better be at peace with whatever you got going at the moment. Definitely working on “50/50” brought my head in that direction a lot.
Tavis: When you read the script, what did you think when you read it? To your earlier point, people can be a little timid or a little shy or have a certain level of angst about a script that is about something real like cancer, it’s got jokes in it. So what’d you take away when you first saw the script?
Gordon-Levitt: This felt real to me. That’s always a pleasure, and rare. Normally you read a screenplay – and I read a lot of them – and the characters don’t feel like people. They feel like plot devices or clichés or stereotypes. So to read a script where the people feel like real human beings and the things that are happening don’t feel like just kind of excuses for big set pieces or pandering to an ad campaign, it just feels like a real story, that’s inspiring to me, and that makes me want to inhabit one of those characters.
Tavis: Oftentimes, when I see movies about serious subject matter like cancer, oftentimes they miss the mark in that they come across as being a bit preachy or proselytizing a little bit, to the point you were intimating a moment ago. Or they go the other direction.
Trying to get this thing just right, though, where you revel in, celebrate, highlight the humanity of the person and get that just right can be a tricky undertaking.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, very tricky, but I was really aided, again, by the fact that it came from a real guy, and he was there on set. Not only did he write the script, but Will was there every day. This was a very collaborative group of people that made this movie. Seth Rogan, the guy in that scene, he was head honcho –
Tavis: That’s funny, you said, “The guy in that scene.” We know who Seth Rogan is.
Gordon-Levitt: Oh, yeah, right, okay. (Laughter)
Tavis: We got that. I think Seth was like, “Hey, hey, hey.” The guy in that –
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, well, the guy that you’re looking at right now. I speak to everybody.
Tavis: I’m funning you, I’m funning you. (Laughter)
Gordon-Levitt: He’s in charge, and he’s got a very loose approach to creativity. He’s very collaborative, he wants to hear everybody’s ideas, everyone can throw in their take on it, and having Will, who actually experienced it and lived it there in the midst of that made it feel like I could take risks. Like I could push those boundaries, because if it wasn’t real, he would tell me.
Tavis: Was that intimidating at all, having him there?
Gordon-Levitt: It only helped. Honestly –
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, right.
Gordon-Levitt: – maybe because he’s not an intimidating guy, he’s a very warm and gentle guy. So maybe if he was an intimidating dude, it would have been intimidating. But no, he was so sweet, and yeah, it just helped and I think it made it feel real.
Tavis: Before I go forward, Joseph, in your career with this Batman series, I want to hear about this – all those Batman fans do, yeah, yeah.
Gordon-Levitt: I’ll try, I’ll try.
Tavis: With whatever you can say about it, which is probably almost nothing.
Tavis: (Laughter) Yeah, so why even ask, right? Before I go forward, though, and attempt to get something out of you about Batman, let me go back first. One of the things that struck me as interesting and actually admirable about you, and some folk in this industry do it and it doesn’t work out so well, and some are afraid to even try it, but you stepped away from the business, went to school.
After “Third Rock from the Sun,” you stepped away, you went to school, and then after school you have to find a way to navigate your way back into the business.
Hopefully you’re not forgotten in the process, you’ve grown up, you’ve got to find a way to fit in. Just give me your sense of how that process has worked, because obviously it’s working well for you.
Gordon-Levitt: Thank you.
Tavis: But how did you make that work?
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, it was hard. To be honest, people pigeonhole people, and that’s definitely evident in Hollywood. I think that’s just part of our overall culture.
But definitely in the business that I work in, if you’re successful in one thing people will tend to assume that that’s the only way you can be successful. So when I was on a funny TV show, after that everyone just wanted to put me in another funny TV show, and it just didn’t interest me very much.
Even though I had a great time on “Third Rock from the Sun” and I love all those people and I love that show, I just didn’t want to do it again. So yeah, I quit, and I always wanted to go to college, so I went to college.
Then when I came back, I was like, “Hey, I want to challenge myself as an actor and maybe do some kind of independent movies and stuff,” a lot of people were just not – didn’t believe that that was something I could do.
But luckily, a few people did. Yeah, some people had to take a chance, and I’ll be grateful.
Tavis: That’s courageous, though, to step away, and then to get an education and then to come back and hope that it will work the second time around.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah. You have to be able to let go, though. If it’s not going the right way, forcing something, in my experience, never works.
Tavis: Okay, so Batman.
Tavis: Is there anything you can tell me? (Laughter) Anything at all about the Batman piece?
Gordon-Levitt: Uh-huh. Well, it’s written and directed by this guy Christopher Nolan. He also made “Inception” that I was in.
Tavis: I see the connection.
Gordon-Levitt: Right, yeah. (Laughs) I’m just so happy to be working with him again. The cool thing also is it’s not just Chris. He has this whole crew of people, everybody from his cinematographer, Wally, to the guy that records the sound, Ed, to Mike, who does props, and everybody, he has this whole traveling circus, and everybody’s been working together for a long time.
They all worked on “Inception” and that’s really different than a normal movie you come on and everybody’s new, and the whole first few weeks of the movie is you’re sort of finding your feet, earning everybody’s trust.
This time you just get to start right off the bat. Everybody trusts each other and it’s so nice to get to work like that. You’re just on a team already.
Tavis: So what we learned about Batman forthcoming is nothing. (Laughter)
Gordon-Levitt: Why is that nothing? Why is that nothing?
Tavis: That Chris Nolan has a bunch of boys who he pulls with him on every project that he works on.
Gordon-Levitt: That’s not nothing.
Tavis: Because he knows Joseph from “Inception,” he pulled him in.
Gordon-Levitt: That’s not nothing. (Laughter)
Tavis: Forget the plotline, forget the role he plays, the character he plays. So I guess we’ll be waiting for Batman when it comes out –
Gordon-Levitt: John Blake, John Blake, Gotham P.D.
Tavis: Anyway, something I think you will talk about, because I think this is fascinating. This is actually very, very innovative. It’s called Hit Record, and I’ll let you explain what this is.
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, so what you’re holding right there, that’s our first anthology of work, called “Recollection.” And Hit Record is this production company I started. When I started my production company I didn’t want to just work within Hollywood, because that can be a pretty exclusive industry.
There are so many great artists all over the world that are doing great work, and I wanted a chance to work with everybody. So we put our projects up on our website, HitRecord.org, and anybody can come contribute to them, and they’re collaborative.
I kind of direct these collaborations, and there’s all sorts of things. Short films, music, writing, art, et cetera, and so “Recollection is our first anthology of the stuff we’ve made, and it’s got a DVD of our videos and it’s got a CD of our music, and it’s that book, it’s got our art and writing.
I’m so proud of it, man. I really love it, and 471 different people worked on it, although we’ve got 50,000 artists that work on our stuff. But we narrowed it down to this mixture of work from 471 people and – what else can I tell you about it? We also share the profits, so all the profits that that thing makes, half go back into the company and half go to those 471 different artists.
Tavis: What’s the takeaway for you, Joseph, when you get a chance to work on a project like this, where you really do see the world over the kind of creativity that really is out there that oftentimes those who are making creative decisions miss?
Gordon-Levitt: Yeah, that the unexpected works sometimes.
Tavis: I like that.
Gordon-Levitt: A lot of this stuff, the way that we do these collaborations is you don’t just put up finished things on the website. You put up the work in progress and people work on it together. And all right, I wrote this thing and I put it up on the website.
Someone else will take what I wrote and act it out, and someone else will download that video of someone acting and put their own music to it, or do a re-edit of it or things like that. Sometimes what someone else does is really not what you expected them to do, which to be honest, sometimes doesn’t work.
But sometimes it does, and allowing that – it’s like we were talking about just a minute ago, letting go. You have to be able to let go of your expectations of what this work is going to turn into, and once you let go then it has the freedom to turn into things you never would have imagined. Some really extraordinary things can come out of it.
Tavis: It’s a very creative project. It’s called Hit Record and you should check it out. I was fascinated to read more about it and learn about it and see the work that Joseph has done with all these 50,000 folk around the world, 471 for this project, I think.
Tavis: Of course you know him from “Third Rock from the Sun,” you know him from “Inception,” he is now the star of a new project called “50/50,” and in about a year or so the new Batman movie coming out. For now, though, Joseph, good to see you, man.
Gordon-Levitt: Thanks, man. It’s a pleasure.
Tavis: Congrats on your success. My pleasure.
Gordon-Levitt: Thank you very much.
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